First Impressions: "Happy Endings"

I had heard a lot about this show. It was supposed to be a Friends-rip off that started slowly and unevenly, stumbling its way forward, in constant danger of being cancelled. That it only picked up mid way through the first season where it finally found it’s feet, was ordered for a full second season by its network and grew into a sitcom-ic juggernaut. However you sliced and diced it, and even with that improvement in its fortunes, it was not exactly being sold to me a show worthy of being included in my viewing schedule.

So to be honest, when it premiered on Aussie TV a few months back, I ignored it. I, to my now great unending pop-culture junkie’s shame, listened to the naysayers, including a reviewer in The Sydney Morning Herald’s The Guide, and didn’t even record it for later viewing. I didn’t even give it a chance.

Fast forward a few months and I have finally seen the show’s pilot episode. Yes, the episode that I had avoided, ignored, and shunned, and frankly I feel like a fool.

Because Happy Endings is VERY FUNNY.

No seriously it is freakin’ hilarious. Like lots of pilots it has work to do in finessing the characters, but it is definitely one of the better pilots I have seen. Each of the characters was fleshed out extraordinary well considering they had 22 minutes to resolve a plot line, introduce six characters and establish the dynamics of the group… and make us love them all.

They managed to do all that, and yes I love them all. All six friends – married couple, Brad and Jane (Damon Wayans and Eliza Coupe), ex-fiancees, Dave and Alex (Zachary Knighton and Elisha Cuthbert) – whose aborted wedding is the centrepiece of the pilot episode since it has ramifications not just for the couple but for the group as a whole – and fake boyfriend and girlfriend, gay Max (Adam Pally), and unlucky in love, Penny (Casey Wilson).

I love too that they live in Chicago, that they trade witty clever bon mots that mere mortals couldn’t come up with in everyday conversation and I love that the dynamic in the group is affirming and caring, and that the writers don’t rely on cheap jokes, and half-arsed caricatures, and put down jokes to establish how these people relate to each other. They rib each other like good friends do but it’s done from a place of affection, and mirrors the way real friends interact.

Does the ghost of Friends, template for all ensemble sitcoms that followed it hang heavy over Happy Endings? To an extent yes, how can it not? But this show is really it’s own creation, with a unique take on what 21st Century life is like for singles and couple people alike.

I can see why it has gone gangbusters. It’s funny, clever, with real people you can engage with, and if you’re going to commit precious time to a show, that’s the least you should expect. The good thing is Happy Endings is likely to exceed this minimum standard again and again, and I can’t wait to see where my new friends take me next.

Cougartown: The most hilarious underrated show on TV!

Yes I have declared Cougartown to be the funniest show on TV.

Why is that you say, wondering why I would pick a show that sounds like it’s about sun-bronzed, women in their 40s desperately chasing after much younger men? Because it isn’t about that, my friends. No, it is not, and shame on you for seizing on the most obvious meaning.

What it is about, if you care to check, is a group of close friends, some romantically involved, some most definitely not, who live in deepest, sunniest Florida, and who despite their best efforts, don’t have it all together. Or do they? That’s the eternal question. They are not even remotely conventional in one sense, having raised bulk red wine drinking and the throwing off coins into a metal tin (Penny can!) into high art. I am sure, to judgmental casual bystanders, their lives must look like a comedic shambles.

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that here are people who have thought about life more than the average person, and while their conclusions may be quirky and not what a ‘normal’ person would admit to, they do make sense if you think about it.

But whether you think it rings true or not, they sound hilarious saying it! Everyone is FUNNY. The heart and soul of the show, Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox, who you may know from a small indie show called Friends, mildly popular a few years back)? FUNNY. Her best friends, Ellie Torres (Christa Miller-Lawrence), and Laurie Keller (Busy Philipps)? FUNNY. Jules’s current romantic partner, Grayson Ellis (Josh Hopkins), her son, Travis (Dan Byrd), ex-husband, Bobby Cobb (Brian Van Holt), and Andy Torres (Ian Gomez) are gloriously, loonily, quirkily FUNNY.

(The photos that follow were tweeted out by the cast last week and show them finishing up filming on season 3, which has been delayed by the network and whose success is critical to the show’s ongoing survival.)

L-R: Ian Gomez, David Arquette (guest star), Courtney Cox, Christa Miller-Lawrence

Courteney Cox and Busy Philipps

On the beach for the last day of filming.

Courteney Cox and Josh Hopkins

What is so engaging about the show is that it isn’t dumb humour. It isn’t predicated on sloppy jokes held together by sticky tape and a few perished rubber bands, with punchlines so obvious they have their own GPS coordinates. No, what this show excels at is humour that springs from the characters themselves and the way they interact with each other.

Not only does this give the show a delightful heart and soul lacking in meaner, lazier shows, but it’s clever humour that ducks and weaves in all sorts of crazy directions that you’re simply not expecting. In a world of media predicated on the lowest common denominator, where everything is flagged way ahead, this is a giddy joy, and pure pop culture delight.

Do yourself the favour of all favours. Check out a show that is original, creative, clever, FUNNY, full of humanity, and everything a fully-realised sitcom should be. Watch because if you don’t it will go the way of the Dodo, 78 records, and Kim Kardashian’s marriage and that would be a loss for everyone.

Most of all though watch it because Cougartown is what TV sitcoms should be – FUNNY, intelligent, and a delight for a comedy-loving soul.

First impressions: "Grimm"

Grimm is every bit as good as I hoped it would be.
Its basic premise is that fairytales are retellings of events that really happened. That werewolves, witches and the like are not simply the product of people’s overactive and fearful imaginations but real, dangerous and capable of causing great harm. In essence, they are cautionary tales, warning a vulnerable humanity to beware of the magical creatures that mean us great harm.
This is precisely why the Grimm brothers, some two centuries ago, collected all these stories together, and published them in written form. Previously they had been handed down via word-of-mouth recountings over camp fires but now a mass audience could reads them, and appreciate the stories anew. 
Standard history has it that the Grimm brothers were German academics and linguists, and quite close in age, desiring nothing more than bringing the collected folk wisdom of a continent into one easily accessible volume. Grimm, however, argues that they began a secretive dynasty that has stretched from the 18th century to the present day, dedicated to keeping humanity safe from those “things that go bump (and howl, and screech) in the night”.
The protagonist of the series, Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli, above) is happily in love with his fiancee-to-be, Juliette Silverton (Bitsie Tulloch), blissfully unaware that he is the heir to this most unusual if family lines. Working as a police detective, he has his hands full with the worst of what he thinks the world has to offer when his Aunt Marie turns up unexpectedly. In one short conversation, before they are attacked by a scythe-wielding Reaper assassin (whose day job is as an accountant showing the show does have a subtle but highly welcome sense of humour and isn’t all intense darkness and light), she makes him aware of his true heritage.
It’s news of course that sends him reeling, but it does make sense of the fact that he keeps seeing people of the street, who to all intents and purposes are human, momentarily display the most monstrous of forms. What he finds out from Aunt Marie before the Reaper’s attacks leaves her in a come in hospital is that those nightmarish flickers he is seeing are actually the creatures’ true forms and that as a Grimm, he is burdened with not only seeing them but stopping them doing great harm.
And it is a burden as his Aunt Marie, who raised him after his parents were killed (he thought they had been killed in a car accident), makes very clear. Of course as he processes earth-saking news like this, his first concerns are for those close to him, and whether it is possible to escape his destiny. He discovers that his destiny is set when he encounters, and to his astonishment, befriends a reformed werewolf (or a Blutbad), Eddie Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) who confirms that Nick is indeed a Grimm, that his calling is real, and that the creatures in fairytales are as real as the earth beneath his feet. Hell, he is now friends, and allies with one!
Still, grappling with his new role in life, he is called into a case with his partner, Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) where a female university’s body, clad in a red hoodie, is found torn to shreds just off a jogging trail. No one can work out what attacked her since the only tracks are those of a heavy hiking boot. But it soon becomes clear to Nick that his police work and his newly-discovered calling are merging into one as the culprit appears to be a denizen of the shady world of creatures previously considered by him to be myth and make believe.
Suffice to say, the case bears eerie parallels to Little Red Riding Hood, and when a little girl, also wearing a red jacket disappears, Nick realises his life will never be the same again. 
Nor I suspect will my viewing schedule. This was a sterling pilot episode. In short order, it introduced the characters, gave us a sense of what life means to them and what they mean to each other, and then upends it tautly and with great drama, while somehow inserting a case to be solved into the mix. It’s writing of the highest order, and like any good pilot, hooked me in, wanting more. Much more. This is a show that is riding the current mania for magical realism, but doing it on its own unique and highly imaginative terms. 
For a show about the supernatural, it does a more than credible job of injecting raw human emotion into the mix and the characters and relationships are given just as much time as the fantastical elements (or not so fantastical if you take the Grimm premise that they are as real as anything else we encounter in our lives) which bodes for the show. There is no point making a show about otherworldly creatures, and those who traverse the breach between their world and ours, if the everyday elements of the show are missing in action. There is ultimately nothing of any substance to relate to, and however beguiling the concept, viewers will desert the show fairly quickly.
Happily, Grimm avoids this trap, and does it with verve and sparking imagination. It is as wonderful as the three minute trailer last year gave me hope it would be, and I cannot wait to immerse in a world that is both as real, and as unreal, as any I have ever seen.

First impressions: "New Girl"

Well thank the TV gods – New Girl is as funny as hyped.
You’d expect it would be somewhat funny since it does star the comedically-talented Zooey Deschanel, who is best known as the flaky but good-hearted, if self-centred on again, off again girlfriend of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer. She brings much of that neurotic, quirky persona to this role, as Jess, a teacher who, after a nasty heartbreak moves in with three straight guys she finds on the internet. They find her unusual behaviour, such as obsessively watching Dirty Dancing for days on end while sobbing into mountains of tissues, or inventing a theme song for herself on the spot, disconcerting, but something about this energetic young teacher attracts them enough to take her in as their new house mate.
Let’s be honest. The show revolves primarily around Zooey Deschanel, and her gift for Lucille Ball-esque goofiness, and that is not necessarily a bad thing to begin with at least. Frasier started off as a star vehicle for Kelsey Grammer, who is a gifted actor and was a point of familiarity for viewers getting used to a new show. However, it sensibly, and quickly evolved into a superb, cleverly-written ensemble comedy than ran for 11 years with characters who were very bit as fleshed out and well-developed as Frasier himself.
I hope much the same thing happens with this show. Don’t get me wrong. The two episodes I have seen so far are very funny and promise a consistently funny show to come. The writers have wisely given the three male house mates some mild quirks of their own to save them from simply being the straight men to Jess’s adorable quirky take on life. Let’s hope though that they continue to pay as much attention to all of these characters as they do to Jess since while her idiosyncratic musings on life, and one-of-a-kind approaches to heartache, dating and love are hilarious, the show could become a one-trick pony if it relies on Zooey Deschanel formidable comedic talents alone.
I doubt though they will make that mistake. Frasier became as well-loved, and popular as it was because all of the characters were as watchable as Frasier and drew elements out of Frasier that a weaker sitcom simply couldn’t have managed. In the same way, I expect the ensemble will grow around Jess, matching her overwhelmingly unique character with characters who accent and enhance her and are every bit as compelling as she is.
One thing I particularly liked is the way it countered any over-goofiness with some touching moments which gave it a depth I wasn’t expecting, at least so soon. It’s off to a very promising start and if reports from the USA are anything to go by, it maintains and builds on this to great effect.
11 years for New Girl? Too early to tell but this episode lays the foundation for a show that has the potential to keep us laughing for quite a while to come.

Once upon a Time

Once Upon a Time is, quite simply, brilliant.

I had high hopes for this show which seemed to promise LOST-like intrigue with a postmodern take on fairytales, and it has delivered in spades. It bounces back and forth between the fairy tale characters as we know and love them, and the present where these same characters, among them Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and a suitably creepy Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) are effectively imprisoned in the modern day town of Storybrooke, Maine. They have been cursed to live in a world without happy endings by the evil queen (Lana Parilla) who is also caught up in the all-consuming spell, unaware of who they really are.

The only person who can free them from this amnesia-powered curse is Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter, Emma, (Jennifer Morrison) who was saved from the same fate as everyone else by being placed in an enchanted wardrobe mere moments before the evil queen’s spell took effect, destined to free everyone on her 28th birthday. The catch (and of course there has to be one)? She is no noble warrior, valiantly riding in to save those she loves. For a start, she doesn’t know anyone in the town, even her mum and dad, who naturally don’t know her either, and though the person trying to convince her she is indeed the saviour of all of fairytale-dom (the son she gave up 10 years earlier – Jared Gilmore who, rather cleverly has been adopted by the evil queen, now mayor of the town) argues intensely and with passion that she is who he claims, she remains convinced it is all hokum.

But little bit by little bit in ways I won’t reveal, she begins to suspect that there may something to the ‘delusions’ of her long lost son, and the series begins to get more and more involving, especially as you have each character in the town contrasted with their backstory, using a very LOST-like mechanism. It shows great promise, and if they can hold to the strong characterisations, post modern synthesis of fairytales and the modern day (a great contrast if ever there was one), and the attendant exploration of what a fight between good and evil really looks like (and is it as black and white as it first appears), it will go from Must See to Absolutely Cannot Ever Miss A Single Episode On Pain of Death.

Yep, it’s that clever, and visually arresting too with the town’s often dour visage contrasting nicely with the brightness and colour of the fairytale flashbacks. I can’t wait to see what they do with it next.

 

Glee done got its mojo back….mostly

Have you ever become fast and firm friends with someone who has charmed and delighted you every step of the way till one day they make an almost insulting remark, or appear disinterested in what you have to say, before bouncing back the next day as if nothing ever happened?

Sure you have. It isn’t something any of us enjoy, but people being the contrary beasties that they are, can often send mixed signals when what we crave is caring consistency. Still, you hope and pray that those who you truly madly deeply care for will be there staunchly the same day in and day out, come what may.

The same thing applies, let’s be honest to the media we consume. Yes we want our music artists to grow and change, and our TV shows to experiment and boldly go place no TV show has gone before, but we want to stay consistently mind-blowingly good while they do it.

I would like to say that Glee managed to do this during their sophomore season but alas they didn’t and while I watched every episode, I found a number of them  disappointing to watch to the extent that it took a lot of effort to complete the season. Characters didn’t play true to type or became discordant one-joke caricatures (thinking Sue Sylvester), romantic entanglements approached almost Melrose Place levels of silliness (by the end of the season everyone had pretty much dated everyone it seemed) and the story lines were often pointless, or just plain mean-spirited and aimless. I just didn’t enjoy watching it any more, a horrifying realisation at the time since I had adored this show almost from the first frame of the pilot.

Apparently I was not alone, and the creators of Glee, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk realised that they have lost their way somewhat and to their credit admitted as much. In fairness to them, it must be exhausting producing 24 hours of television a season and making sure that you stay right on course though all of it. But I think the basis of the criticism was that they didn’t just veer off a little bit, but they went careering off over the fields, threw away the map and hoped they would eventually find the road again.

Well fortunately they have not just found the road, but are screaming down the freeway, and Glee is back doing what it does so well – telling stories about a bunch of musically-inclined misfits in a high school trying to find their way in life, and singing as they do it. Yes it does have a slight air of been-there-done-that but that is inevitable to some extent, and hardly detracts from the freshly reclaimed vibe the show has in spades. Yes Sue is still a tad too one-joke for my liking, but then they have tried to broaden her character out on occasion which has worked well, and I guess they are counting on viewers remembering those moments she displayed a humanity other that wasn’t verging on the cartoonish. But Rachel and Kurt are still dreaming of the bright lights of Broadway, Finn is back with Rachel, and Kurt and Blaine are closer than ever.

So frankly what’s t complain about? They are singing and dancing and back to being the bright shiny friends we know and love, and it’s great to have them back!

Crazy Stupid Love (Review)

What a perfectly constructed, beautifully and intelligently written, and brilliantly acted movie. It follows a series of threads that examine love in all its crazy, stupid glory – Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) and his wife Emily (Julianne Moore), high school sweethearts who face major changes in their relationship after 25 years; a bar Casanova, Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling, with abs so perfect they are worth the price of admission alone, and leads to a classic line being uttered by his companion of the moment) who after bedding hundreds of women, and making over Cal into a middle-aged stud of sorts,  finds love when he least expects it, throwing him completely; Hannah, an up and coming lawyer who find her expectations of love turned on their head, leading to momentous changes; and Cal and Emily’s son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo) who falls in love with a girl 4 years older than him, leaving him convinced he has found his soul mate for life.

Yes, there is a lot going on, but it is one of those almost perfect movies where the most exquisite blend of script, production and acting comes together to create a whole so engaging, rich and rewarding that you can scarcely believe it exists, much less in the current sequels and remakes driven insanity of modern Hollywood. It never feels hurried, overdone or crowded and everything plays out with an elegance and restraint you simply don’t see in many movies anymore.

Such glowing praise, you gasp. Are you sure you haven’t waxed just a little too lyrical? For once, and I am saying this as an extrovert prone to emotionally extravagant reactions at times, it really is worth all the superlatives I can lavish on it. That’s not to say it’s perfect – the ending is a tint bit twee and so neat that any Obsessive Compulsive Disorder moviegoers will be sending in their cinema seat in quiet rapture – but it whenever it threatens to veer into cliche and serve up that which we have seen far too many times before, it sidesteps neatly away, throwing up a witty line, or wry observation, or post modern self-referential quip that sends it hurtling off boldly where no romantic comedy/drama has dared to go before. 
There are three scenes in particular where the script writer, Dan Fogelman, pulled the anti-cliche ploy off perfectly, to great effect. The first time, after a particularly unpleasant and publicly embarrassing argument between Cal and Emily at their son’s parent/teacher night, where the estranged couple look to be close to reconciling before things go awry, Emily drives off leaving Cal standing alone. At that point, it begins rains, and just as I was sighing that the seemly perfect movie has resorted to such a cliched device, Cal sighs, sticks his hands in his pocket, and mutters “This is so cliched.” Yes Dan used a cliched plot effect but by referring to it directly, and in keeping with Cal’s generally feeling that the world is against him, it instantly became far less cliched and reinforced the sense that any hope of reconciliation is slipping from Cal and Emily’s fingers.

The second instance of evading cliche with aplomb occurs when Cal has constructed a miniature golf course in the couple’s backyard to evoke memories of the dates they used to have when they were high school sweethearts. With the help of two of their kids, Robbie and Molly (Joey King), they surprise Emily who, in any other movie would be swept up in the grand romantic gesture, realise her heart belongs only to Cal (something she is close to doing anyway in  a very believable progression) and fall into his arms. It’s at this apparently predictable juncture that Dan throws a farcical wrench in the works, employing the arrival of characters, the revelation of whose identities would be a major step into spoiler territory, who send events careering off into everywhere but happily ever after land. Its masterful, fun and advances a number of the relationships with exquisite dramatic and comedic perfection.

And finally at the very end of the movie, with the whole family gathered for Robbie’s 8th Grade graduation, and Robbie’s speech as a salutatorian sliding into an emotional anyss, Cal steps in, and gives the sort of speech that would normally make you wince, but somehow comes across as heartfelt and almost believable. (I say almost because the circumstances simply wouldn’t lend themselves to those events but then you have to give movies a certain amount of belief suspension, or they’d be stuck filming reality all the time, and that just ain’t fun.) Yes, the ending is a tad on the neat and tidy side, but it also leaves enough things hanging out to dry that you can’t be quite certain that things really will play out that easily, and it proves once again what a masterful script this really is.

What is most refreshing about this movie is how real, and yet hopeful and optimistic this movie is. It knows life is seldom as perfect or lovely as we want it to be, and keeps itself very firmly anchored in that appreciation, never losing sight of the grittiness of life. But it also dares to suggest that if we want the beautiful things hard enough, and are prepared to fight for them, and not simply settle for what drifts towards us, that good things can happen, dreams can play out, and we might, just might, find the love of our life, and live happily ever after.

In a non-cliched, well-scripted kind of way, of course.

Terra Nova (Australian premiere)

This show, partly from the hands of Steven Spielberg, but also from the very capable creative minds of Brannon Brag and Rene Echevarria (late of the re-incarnated and awesomely good, Battlestar Galactica), came with hype. Great generous lashings of commercial TV hype, which immediately made me fearful that I was dealing with a dud that they were desperately hoping would be embraced because it featured dinosaurs. Lots and lots of dinosaurs 85 million years in the past. 


But after some positive US-based reviews (and yet sadly less than stellar debut ratings; they attracted 9 million viewers which sounds like lots but isn’t even close to blockbuster territory in a country of 300 million people), I gathered my friends close, ordered pizza, chilled the wine, and surrendered to the hype, annoying ads every 10 minutes and all. So what did I find?


Well, quite a lot of good things and some points of worry. But let’s start with the positive stuff first since that will make the mild criticisms not look so bad in comparison. The series premise is that mankind has once again destroyed the Earth, this time in 2149, and the only hope for a restart of civilisation is to send colonists back 85 millions years ago into the heart of the Cretaceous period (thus bypassing any allegations that this is Jurassic Park, the series), on what is fortunately a separate time line, which means that the colonists will not change anything in 2149 (though it could do with more than few tweaks to its bleak dystopian hell). The opening scenes are brilliantly done (filmed in Brisbane according to Jason O’Mara, who plays family patriarch, Jim Shannon, who tweeted this fact last night during the screening, leading a response from me that got retweeted by him – see below at the end of the review – which was very geek cool and had me grinning ear to ear), and you can well understand from watching the decaying world, why everyone, and his asthmatic dog, wants to escape, and get to the verdant green of Terra Nova.


For most people, its the luck of the draw that gets them there. But thanks to Jim’s wife, Elisabeth, who’s work as a highly talented doctor gets her noticed by the right people, (she is played by Shelley Conn), the family are offered the chance to go on a one way trip to salvation. The only snag? Jim is in prison for fathering an illegal third child, who also isn’t invited along for the ride. What to do? Well if you’re Elisabeth, you help engineer your husband’s escape from prison, bribe people to get him into the ultra secret Terra Nova departure building, hide your illegal daughter in a backpack, and then bolt like hell for the wormhole until everyone in the family is safely through. All a little convenient, but so much storytelling rests on too good to be true events so who am I to quibble since I do much the same thing in my novels?



Once safely in Terra Nova, with minimal repercussions, they set about creating a new life in what is styled by the leader of the colony, Commander Nathaniel Taylor (a man I would wager is not too enamoured of democratic representational government becoming part of the way Terra Nova is governed any time soon) as a paradise on earth. Naturally enough, while nothing too awful happens, paradise is cracked from one side to the other, though not in clear sight naturally, and in quick succession, it’s revealed that many members of the Sixth Pilgrimage (each new group of colonists is called a Pilgrimage) have rebelled and set up their own colony, that the Commander’s son has gone rogue and is writing odd equations all across the rocks at a waterfall in a forbidden area that may mean something Important, and a possible hidden agenda for Terra Nova itself (is it really the virtuous road to a new civilisation that it’s portrayed or something darker and more sinister?).


This is all very good and meaty and bodes well for a series that won’t be, I hope, Dinosaur-of-the-Week. Some well played conspiracy angles always help keep viewers intrigued, as long as you don’t do a Lost and become so convoluted that people give up watching in despair. Also the idea that no matter where you go, that humanity will still be itself and right royally screw things up, no matter how much hope is attached to the endeavour, anchors a show in some sort of compelling reality, and keeps you watching through any mawkish moments, of which there a more than a few in any Spielbergian creation.


So, so far so good. Good characters (if a little on the cliched side), high drama, dark threads of less than perfect reality against a backdrop of hope and new starts. The major downside? I fear that the series will eschew gritty dark reality for too much of a family drama focus. The producers have essentially said they have toned down the sci-fi to dial up the family angle, and while this is no great sin in itself, it will be a major drawback if the characters are not given some depth and richness, and the storylines are kept simple with no real ramifications for the Disneyfied characters. My cause for hope though is the aforementioned conspiracy angles, and the 6th pilgrimage which should, if not watered down, lead to some darkness in the sunniness of Terra Nova beguiling new dawn.


So is the hype well merited? Yes for the most part. Its a good solid drama with a fantastical premise, some promised, well flagged, elements of flawed humanity and a tableau on which to draw a rich multi faceted drama. Just watch the twee family moments Mr Spielberg and you will richly deserve any hype that comes your way, even if it is from 85 million years in the past.

The Big C

The Big C is one of the standouts in that relatively new crop of HBO-quality shows – even when the shows aren’t from that stable of quality, they are invariably tagged as such – which also includes Hung, Breaking Bad,  United States of Tara, and the much longer running Weeds, which feature a protagonist from the squeaky clean side of the street who is forced by dire circumstance of one kind or another, into making compromises and decisions that lead far across the lines onto the wrong side of the tracks, or at least into almost unrecognisable territory where few in society wish to tread. While they are shocked at first at the things they say and do in the interests of survival, they reach an accommodation of sorts with their new life because they usually have no choice but to do so. They could rail and rant, and scream about their misfortune, but in a society like America, with it’s less than generous welfare net, and resulting dog-eat-dog survival mentality, especially for the lower socio-economic classes, this achieves nothing, and the first of order of the day, of each and every day, is simply to do what it takes to survive.

In the case of the Big C, which stars the supremely talented Laura Linney as Cathy Jamison, a middle class teacher with stage 4 cancer, this means doing whatever it takes to ensure she survives her battle with melanoma in the midst of a broken medical system that too often penalises the very people it is supposed to be helping. She does have allies in her fight – among them, her loving husband Paul (played by the awesomely good, Oliver Platt, who has yet, I suspect, to ever find a role that doesn’t agree with him), and her son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), who plays a teenager torn by wanting to spend time with his mum, but simultaneously wanting to fleeing the reality of her possible death, and a high school student in her class, Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe of Precious) who is perhaps the only person she knows, besides her husband, who doesn’t try to sugar coat the harsh reality of Cathy’s present situation.

Oliver Platt and Laura Linney as Paul and Cathy Jamison
Gabriel Basso as Adam

Gabourey Sidibe as Andrea Jackson

But many of the people who should be a source of support end up being very much more than hindrances. Her mentally ill brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) who veers between support and antagonism, his girlfriend, Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon, late of Sex in the City) who styles herself as Cathy’s very best friend but often doesn’t have a clue what’s required to be supportive, and her neighbour, Marlene (Phyllis Somerville), who’s dementia-fuelled acerbic observations of life ultimately lead her to kill herself with a bullet to the brain, which doesn’t end her role in the show at all – she appears thereafter to Cathy as an apparition, usually at the worst possible times.

John Benjamin Hickey and Cynthia Nixon as Sean Tolkey, Cathy’s brother, and Rebecca respectively

Phyllis Somerville as Marlene

But despite all this, Cathy battles on, doing what she must to get appointments with specialists – leading to an hilarious scene where she sneaks into an elite oncologist’s surgery as a saleswoman from a drug company and makes a scene demanding an appointment just as the receptionist is calling her to confirm one – battling everyone’s well intentioned but suffocating sympathy, and trying to hold on to a semblance of a normal life while it breaks apart with gusto around her. 

What is wonderfully refreshing is that she manages to create a new life, full of contradictions, and breaks with her well ordered previous middle class existence, and make it work with a mix of saintliness, screaming frustration, and a heapin’ helpin’ dose of black humour laden one-liners. Her life may have changed beyond all recognition but it is her life, and she will fight to retain it with everything she has in her arsenal, regardless of where it takes her, and for the audience at least, discomforting though it may be at times, where her unexpected journey takes us is entertaining indeed.